Topical Issue Debate

School Transport

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for allowing me the time to raise this very important matter on behalf of the families in Carlow and Kilkenny who have been disaffected by the current school transport system. A clear commitment was given in the programme for Government for the school transport system to be reviewed in advance of budget 2017. A press release was issued by the Department of Education and Skills on 29 July 2016 which stated the review process was underway and that the result of the review would be considered the context of budget 2017. The statement is still available on the Department website. However, it is now the end of November and we are still awaiting the results of the review.

The Government has not honoured its commitment to carry out this review. A cross-party group tasked with examining the many issues within the school transport scheme did not meet until late September, which was too late given that schools had reopened. There was no realistic chance afforded to Opposition Deputies to effect meaningful change in advance of the budget as we held preliminary meetings a couple of weeks in advance.

These meetings should have taken place in the early summer so that some work could be have been done before the Dáil recess. I was not surprised in the least to hear no mention of additional funding for the school transport scheme in budget 2017. It was the clearest indication yet that the Government has no real interest in fixing the problems in the scheme, and it seems that it wants to continue a system that causes stress and anxiety for tens of thousands of families every September.

I submitted a three-page letter to the Minister's office in advance of budget 2017, containing a number of recommendations in respect of areas which must be addressed in advance of the next academic year. More credence must be given to parents in respect of safety concerns. I can cite one such example in south Kilkenny. There is a pick-up and drop-off point at Butler's Cross for children attending Thomastown post-primary school. Serious safety concerns were raised in respect of this location by a delegation comprising gardaí, local authority, school authorities, public representatives and parents.

One parent even produced an e-mail from the Road Safety Authority which recommended that the practice needed to be brought to the attention of the bus company or that the school involved needed to contact the bus company. I raised safety concerns surrounding this location, which has a t-junction, a bad bend, a humpback bridge and cars travelling at 80 km/h, with the local school transport office and the head of school transport at Bus Éireann. I was told that because the local inspector was happy that the location was safe, Bus Éireann remained satisfied that the current pick-up point was suitable for purpose. That is one such example - I have several others.

How can one inspector's opinion overrule a delegation comprising gardaí, the local authority, the school authorities, public representatives and parents? This is just one example of a practice which the current school transport legislation and terms and conditions facilitate. We must act urgently in advance of next year.

Over a month ago the Minister of State, Deputy John Halligan, stood in the Chamber and stated the result of the review would be published within two weeks. How long more we have to wait? I held a meeting with the Minister of State and we were supposed to have follow-up meetings which never happened. We were too late because the system was up and running in September. We should have met in April or May, prior to the new school term. The entire system needs to be examined. I know of cases where families have been told that older siblings must attend one school and younger ones must attend others because the bus rules state they must attend the nearest school.

As the Government knows, in rural Ireland we are all very parochial and in 1965 when schools were amalgamated a guarantee was given that transport agreements would be honoured. Inspectors are telling some families that their children must attend schools in neighbouring parishes, which is not on. We all have sporting, religious and other ties to our parishes. That must be recognised and facilitated.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter. Before I address the issue of the review, I would like to give Members of the House an outline of the extent of the school transport service. It is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of my Department. It covers over 100 million km annually and in the region of 114,000 children, including some 10,000 children with special educational needs, are transported in approximately 4,000 vehicles on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country.

In general, children are eligible under the school transport scheme if they are attending their nearest school and satisfy the requisite distance criteria - 3.2 km at primary level and 4.8 km at post-primary level.

Before I go any further, the Deputy may not be aware that a value for money review was initiated in 2011 by Fianna Fáil. I work on the criteria introduced following the review. That is not a criticism, but I am making the point that the criteria had been set when I entered the Department.

Transport on a concessionary basis is available to children who, because they are not attending their nearest school or reside less than the requisite distance from the school, are not eligible under the school transport scheme. Transport on a concessionary basis is subject to a number of conditions which are detailed in the school transport scheme such as the availability of spare seats on the bus after all eligible children have been catered for and payment of the school transport charge. The difficulty is that the number of children availing of school transport on a concessionary basis has increased significantly, from almost 4,000 children in 2010 to 25,000 children last year.

The programme for Government committed to reviewing the concessionary charges and rules element of the school transport scheme and the review has been completed. There were some difficulties because the review was complex and I had asked for all elements arising from the 2011 review to be dealt with. We were to release the report on the review last week, but as there was a bereavement in the family of one of the authors of the review, we had to put it off.

Furthermore, we have had some difficulties with Bus Éireann. I know that the Deputy is aware of these, as he has brought some of the difficulties in his constituency to my attention, for which I commend him. The chief executive officer will meet representatives of all parties tomorrow. Following the meeting, the review will be put up on the website next week and a copy of it will be sent to every party in the House. A follow-up meeting with all Members, including Deputy Bobby Aylward who made telling statements and recommendations, will also take place. We will examine the report to see how we can change the scheme.

The problem is that there are financial restrictions on us. I have made the point before and will make it again, but if I had my way, every child would be able to avail of the scheme. However, that is not within my remit. It will require further legislation to make more money available if all parties want every child to be bussed to school. I would be delighted to ensure every child would be able to avail of the scheme.

After the meeting with Bus Éireann tomorrow which should be fruitful, the report will be put on the website and a copy will be sent to everyone who wishes to have one. It will certainly be sent to a representative of each party represented in the Dáil.

I welcome the review which is well due after five years. I accept that the last one was carried out under Fianna Fáil and that the criteria were set down at that time. However, we need to review the scheme. I, therefore, look forward to the meeting with Bus Éireann tomorrow.

The problem I highlighted is just one example of a vast array of fundamental problems with the school transport scheme. When I approach the Department, the head of school transport in Bus Éireann or the local office with any problem on behalf of a constituent, the standard, robotic response blindly quotes the legislation. No matter what I do, that is what I get back. Then I am told that we are the legislators and that it is for us to change the scheme. That is why I welcome the review. We in this House must change the legislation if that is what is necessary because Bus Éireann only implements the legislation handed down by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. These problems will not go away until legislative action is taken.

The School Transport Appeals Board is absolutely not fit for purpose. In response to a parliamentary question I tabled recently, I was informed that not one appeal had been successful in 2015 or 2016. Is it for show that we have the appeals board? The total payments to the members of the board in 2015 amounted to €14,403. This year to date, the payments made amount to €10,844. The board needs to be scrapped with immediate effect before another penny is wasted. The fact that no appeal has been successful in two years tells a story.

When a Deputy or any public representative wants to make an appeal, in Waterford in our case, we just get the robotic answer: "We can do nothing." An inspector has all the power and no one can overrule him or her. What he or she says stands and we have no say. I need to see an appeals system or some concessionary system in place in order that we would be able to go to someone to make our case and be heard. There are genuine cases, in which perhaps 100 m is the difference between a child getting on or not getting on a bus and families being split. I want an appeals board that listens to the concerns of Deputies, Senators and other political representatives. I ask the Minister of State to take this on board and ensure there will be an appeals system in place that will work for the people. That is what we stood up in 1965 when schools were amalgamated and it is the principle to which we should return.

There will be no sos this afternoon by the looks of things.

I will be quite frank and honest with the Deputy: he has a point about the appeals system. I know this from being in opposition and will not say otherwise. I make the point that many appeals involve the requisite distance. The difficulty is that the criteria are a distance of 3.2 km from a primary school and 4.8 km from a post-primary school. Where do we stop? Do we reduce the distance to 2.1 km or 1.2 km? I am sure the Deputy can understand from where I am coming.

I understand some of the appeals are difficult. The Department tells me that we either set criteria - they were set by Fianna Fáil when in government - or we do not. By the way, it was not a criticism of the Deputy's party when I stated it had put the appeals mechanism in place. It was the right thing to do, but we do face a difficulty. I will take on board what the Deputy said about the appeals mechanism. After the meeting with the chief executive officer of Bus Éireann tomorrow, we will meet again. The Deputy might examine the new plan for concessionary travel. If we disagree or there is a problem with it, we can sit down to see if we can work through it.

Again, the big difficulty is the finance needed to include every child in the scheme. If someone tells me in the morning that another €20 million or €30 million is available to me, we can do it and we will have no problem with travel to school on a concessionary basis for children and few problems with eligibility. However, we should wait until we meet Bus Éireann tomorrow. The Deputy has made very good recommendations at our meetings. Let us go through the review process and then sit down to see where we go from there.

It is small money. The Government controls the purse strings.

I am sorry, but that completes-----

I have no problem with that.

The Deputy and the Minister of State were given their allotted time.